All posts by Richard Benton

Love Story

AN EERIE HOWL woke me. I sat bolt upright, scared out of sleep; scared out of my wits. Werewolves in their human form can be fearful, you know. With difficulty I controlled my fear. I patted the bed next to me. No wife. She must be night running. She’d slipped out of bed quietly so as not to wake me.

A moonbeam searchlight illuminated the bedroom floor. I stared at it. The full moon! Still in a sleepy brain fog, I got up and closed the windows.

In my surface thoughts, I knew she’d lope along in her changeling form, naked but for the furry gray mat that now covered her, hairy arms extended, drool pumping from her excited mouth. I pictured it and felt the bump of her eagerness.

Then it came to me. Full moon? Tonight’s moon is full. I should be out hunting, too. The pangs began.

“No! Wait. My gift!”

I couldn’t join her. Her birthday. I wouldn’t hunt with her on her birthday. Werewolves had made that date sacred for centuries. No sharing, not that night. All hers!

My mind stretched back six hundred years when as a young Were, I anticipated finding my wife, my soulmate, a human yet to be born, yet to be “converted.” I’d only been brought into the fold fifty years before. There had been a succession of Were-women, but none jelled with my psyche.

Then Miranda appeared on the scene. I sensed her while traveling through the small village of Hob in eastern Transylvania. Only a baby then, I sensed she had good, caring parents. She lived in a tiny but well kept thatched house on a small plot owned by the local Count. Yes, I would know her for a wife.

I cast out a charm warning other werewolves away. As a part of the convention they must leave her alone and they would. All except the crazies, that is. I would have to watch out for them, so I made a mental note to swing by this village once every six months and check to see if my charm had been compromised.

It happened twice and almost a third time. Once, after she turned six, I wandered through her village in the dead of night to check my charm. Immediately I got a feeling of being impaled, like a silver knife stabbing deep into my brain. I’d been violated. It made me curl over in fright at first, but instantly anger arose in my belly.

Curses, I thought, it has to be a cast-out crazy. I stopped by the little house in Hob and recast my charm. Being the first charm on this young person, it obliterated the corruption attached to my original. Though they ignored it, even the crazy ones knew the power of first charm.

Again at the age of nine it happened. The unknown crazy must be persistent. Not yet nubile, my recast charm solved the immediate problem and my choice remained mine.

It happened again at age fifteen, a most dangerous time. My life partner had bloomed into a beautiful, dark haired, vivacious, brown-eyed human woman nearly ripe for the taking. Two more years; only two and I could make her mine. I removed the crazy’s corruption again, but knew that such a repeat offender would not likely desist.

I began to frequent the hamlet thereafter, spreading my spoor widely so he would be aware and careful not to range within my territory while feeding at night. Not a guarantee and sick with the thought that I could lose my precious, I began to lay in wait for him, night after night.

Now I hid my spoor and kept my thoughts hidden.  I became gaunt from unsatisfied hunger, unwilling to leave, unwilling to give up my intended.

Perhaps I could catch this crazy who’d defied Werewolf convention. I knew the law. I could bring him in front of the Were council and ask them to “induce” the crazy to avoid this place forevermore. It could be done. The weight of the council’s power could be extremely persuasive.

Finally, nearly crazed myself, he skulked in. About to corrupt my charm for the third time and while focused on my lovely, his defenses down, I opened my mind, froze him to the spot and ordered him to silence, lest he disturb my intended and frighten her. I sent out my signal to the Werewolf clan to convene a council with prejudice and while I waited I smugly watched him writhe in place.

Soon I sensed other Were’s converge on my spot, angry Werewolves anxious to confront this travesty, this outcast, this Mad-Were who had worked his corruption against their law.

The oldest, a Werewolf of a thousand years took over as leader. He quickly assessed the situation, called forth for me to release the crazy into their thrall—excluding me as petitioner—and asked the assembled to lend him their support. As the council transferred power to the leader, his eyes grew brighter and brighter and finally they glowed with unearthly light. Then he blazed away at the bad one.

The Were melted within and his desire for my prize dissolved like the fantasy he’d lived with. At the right moment the leader released him, and with no further thought in his mind except the normal need to feed, the crazy skulked into the night.

“The council is concluded,” the leader said. Each member looked at the other and without a smile, their duty done, returned to their hunting grounds.

With less than two years to go, hardly any time at all, I kept closer tabs on my future wife, but with the area scoured of possible challengers and with the annoying crazy neutralized, I had little to concern me thereafter.

I briefly thought of the night I took her as wife. Such a beautiful time. I’d courted her for several months in her garden, always under the cloak of night. She came to understand that we are simply a different species, not bad, but chained to our need for the sustenance of living flesh.  Frightened at the beginning – who wouldn’t be – I patiently won her over. In the end she wanted me. I ceremoniously initiated her to immortality one night as silver-lined clouds traveled slowly past a glorious full moon atop the sharp peak of a Transylvanian mountain. The joy I felt I will never forget.

My reverie broke with a faint sound, barely heard through the closed windows, but well known, the howl of success. It told me my wife had caught her victim in the night and would soon feed. And though my countenance in the darkness showed not on my face, I felt glad for her.

She would be home before first light, perhaps with a little blood still dripping from her muzzle. I would wipe it gently away and nuzzle her lovingly.

For now I could rest, but I knew sleep would elude me while I waited because I wanted to greet her as she came in.

I wanted to say, “Happy Birthday, my dear Miranda.”

Fireside Chat

I LEAD OFF the discussion. “Friends do for friends, right?”

“Well, yeah, but…” Charlie starts.

Get this. We are sitting around this roaring campfire in the woods up near Talcott Notch. It’s a warm night and insect spray is keeping the bugs off. Our faces are blazing and our backs are cold. Five of us stare into the flames together, me and my four friends. We are unlike, like I mean different! It’s not an encounter session…maybe it is. We’re here to talk out something.

Two rules; we stare nowhere but at the moving flames while we’re talking, and everyone must have something to say.

I better back up a bit. It comes down to an argument we had back in March. That day we’re in Joe’s Bar on Center Street in Waterbury tossing Bud’s and Sam’s and maybe a few boilermakers. Hand to mouth we’re munching chips or cashews or popcorn at one of Joe’s seriously distressed tables. The surface is covered with bottles, most being empty. We’re a bunch of old farts being loud.

To understand this group and where we are you have to get to know the guys. First me. I’m Donnie. I make things happen. I’m headstrong with a bit of a temper. I might know almost as much as I think I do, depending on who you listen to.

So Charlie’s got a load on and throws out the thing that grabs me. “Why are we friends?”

“Why are we friends? You shitting me?” I say to him.

“No law says we have to be,” Charlie says.

“You got no string tied to your ass,” I say back.

I get this sudden thing, like a brickbat to the side of the head. It’s something I’d been mulling for months, but it didn’t have a home until that moment. We’re not alike in any way, shape or form, so why do we stick together? I hold up my hands and wave everybody down.

“Hey, gang, Charlie wonders why we are friends.”

Everybody in the small group debates the point and we get nowhere, as usual, but nobody says no when I offer to head up a special session of the self-styled Raucous Bunch in a place where they’ll have no choice but to think about it. I don’t want asshole answers.

Now it’s July and here we are, camping…and drinking…and munching. Food seems to be part of every social conversation. Maybe food is a catalyst in the nature of friendships, something to do with your hands while you’re thinking, I dunno. Well, if you’re Italian, ha ha.

I plan to test the theory tonight by the fire. Some time ago I gave them all homework, a sheet of paper, a list in fact. Here’s how I figure it will shake out. I’ve had a spotty life, but I’m good with me. I like me. Sometimes I disappoint me, but I rationalize, who doesn’t?

Charlie, the one who kicked this off in my head went to college and graduated an engineer. He stuck with it and had a successful career. That’s in engineering. In marriage, he stunk. He got a girl and had some kids, but the idea of a permanent relationship went south five times before he gave up and decided single fit him best. By then his divorce decrees said he had to pay for seven kids until they became adults. That’s all past him now.  The last one turned eighteen a month ago. He’s pragmatic about it.

Al is short and bull-like and isn’t that smart like a thinker, but he’s the tenacious one. He ended up a laborer, what’d he care? He wins arguments by sticking to what he knows and never rises to a new idea. Still, he’s a sweetheart of a guy and nobody denies that. He married, but didn’t have any kids. His wife died three years ago.

John is quiet and studious when you compare him to the rowdy gang we generally are together so I wonder how he got to be part of the Raucous Bunch. I scratch my head on that one. He told us once he wanted to be a Minister, but life got in his way—didn’t it for all of us—and he became a Librarian his whole life instead. He had the same job when he retired. Advancement didn’t appeal.

Finally we come to Ralph. He’s our big guy, three hundred pounds of mostly muscle gone to seed through inactivity. He worked in the Waterbury school system and from what I heard, when he bellowed, the kids listened. He made them look up to him, so he did well.

There you have it. The Raucous Five, and except for me—I’d been camping for years—the others met at the campground shorn of their natural habitat. I’m thinking I picked it right.

So I ask the question and Charlie already wants to pick a fight.

I say, “Go ahead. You opened you big mouth, BUT what?”

He looks at me. “Rule number one, stare at the fire, Charlie.” His gaze goes back. Now he’s talking to all of us. There’s method in this madness.

“Okay, Donnie, you’re right and you’re wrong. Suppose I turned you in to the police because I was trying to be a friend.”

“Let’s roundtable first.” I look at Al.

“Yeah. Charlie, you’re not being a friend if you rat on a friend.” Al does what I think he’s going to. He’s sticking to the tried and true. He’s honest because he can’t think of a good way to not be. I like honesty, but there are all shades of it.

“Maybe a friend you rat on isn’t a friend.”

John speaks up. “What drew you to him to begin with?”

Ralph moves in his chair. It threatens to collapse and dump him. I’m taking a bet in my head on that. Before John can answer he joins. “Twenty-five years I taught grammar school kids and I saw every kind of conflict, including friendships that came and went. You can’t figure it. It’s chemistry.”

I break in. “The major problem is kids become big people and all people change as they go.”

“Right,” Ralph says, “they grow up, they grow down, they grow sideways, and what’s the cause? Other people, other circumstances, other places and how people react to them. It’s up here where all that happens.” He taps his noggin.

Charlie glances at Ralph and returns to studying the flames. “You know; I like this,” I say. I reach into the nearby woodpile and toss a good sized stick across the burning center. Sparks leap for the sky and everybody’s eyes follow them up and watch them die.

John says, “You like what?”

“Thinking. We don’t do much at Joe’s place.”

We’re silent for a time.

“You guys check out the thing I gave you?” They turn to look at me. They’re going to crack wise, but before they do they get this look and they glance at each other and nod.

“Yeah, thanks. A list of all the values people live by…or should. I thought you were blowing smoke up my butt, but you opened my eyes,” Charlie says. “You want to tell us what you had in mind, Donnie?”

“Sure. I’ve been thinking about our group for awhile and I started wondering about it. Wasn’t till Charlie made his offhand comment a few months back that it gelled with me and I figured I ought to go for some answers. That’s when I grabbed for the brass ring and spilled it to the group and here we are.”

They’re all ears.

“First, friends do for friends. We know this, but did we know that each one of us comes to that conclusion from different places. What is a friend to Al, to John, to Charlie? Ralph may have a different take on what’s a friend to him. See?

I see cloudy confusion.

“Or…maybe there’s nothing to see.”

I deadpan so they can’t read me.

“This sheet I took off the Internet from some guy named Blackwell, on values we live with. I looked it over and shortened all the garbage he spouted to what I figured were the real meanings of what he tried to say. I left one out.”

Nobody looks at the fire now. They pull out the sheet I gave them from front and back pants pockets, one from a shirt pocket, and they study the list in the firelight.

I’m seeing what I want to see so I feel smug, kind of. “What value did I leave out?”

“Tell us,” they say.

“Sure. It’s friendship. Friends are people who sustain us by accepting us as we are.”

The light dawns. So easy you could trip over it. Of course it’s a value!

Charlie says, “You dragged us out to your goddamned campsite in the wilderness to tell us this?”

I make it heartfelt because I feel it in my gut. “You guys, you’re what I have and I’m for you. Isn’t it nice to know why a bunch of guys who wouldn’t look at any of us on the street turned into buddies? You think you’d remember if we’re screaming at each other in Joe’s place?”

The guys sit and think a bit.

“So it’s written on the inside of your brains?”

Nods and, “Yeah.” We share a special moment.

Then Charlie says to the boys, “Let’s grab this old bastard and toss him in the lake.” They get out of their chairs and go for me.

Friends…so nice to be appreciated!

Remember January

I’M SITTING ON a backless swivel stool at O’Brian’s bar nursing a double scotch, my thoughts on how my life went to hell ten years ago. A guy comes in and takes the stool next to me. I look across the bar and eyeball him in the big mirror. Angry eyes! I see a bearded man, big features, blue work clothes. He puts one hand on the bar and leaves the other somewhere in his unbuttoned heavy greatcoat. Impression? Guy’s got a problem.

I shift a couple of inches past a half-full bottle of gin aggravating my view and focus on my reflection. The guy I see is grubby, unshaven, dirty shirt, mouth down-turned in a scowl. I stare at my shirt collar in the mirror. Frayed, just like me. Life sucked.

My parole officer decide to check up on me I’d be up shits creek. I couldn’t be here. Maybe someday he’d find out what down and out means.

O’Brian’s sits in the middle of a row of struggling businesses a hundred and forty steps from my pad. I counted them twelve times before I lost interest. To call the hovel I live in a pad is generous. I’m on the third floor of a nineteen thirties brick tenement that lost hope forty years ago. It ought to be condemned but in Detroit you can go up and down half the town and see the same thing. There’s a word – endemic. Yeah, that’s it. Detroit and me have had better days.

Guy in charge where I live: dirty every way. Never see my super dealing, but some of the types I eyeball walking to his door and looking around like “how guilty am I” says it all. He fits with the dingy halls, holes in the walls, amateur knife carved woodwork, graffiti, and yeah, the smell, urine, rotting garbage and a pervasive undertone of weed. You don’t get used to it.

Derelicts lurch and stagger in the hallways. They can’t hold it, don’t care or are too drunk to know. My plumbing breaks twice a week on average. Ask the super to fix it, I’d wait forever, so I mickey-mouse it.

I look into my whiskey glass. My two hands gently cup it like a lover, but my thoughts keep bouncing back to the long ago January when my hell began. Remember that movie Groundhog Day? Mine goes ten years back…today…ten years back…today, like a yo-yo.

Ten years ago I had a good job, respect, decent pay. How I could embezzle all that money and get caught and do time, that’s history. Looking at life from the other side makes me sick, but you know; I did it and nothing new, I did it for a woman.

The big guy looks me over. He speaks, “Tale of woe?”

Tale of woe?  Sure. Why not? I got time. I could write a book I got time. I look at him direct, first time.

Now the guy has a half smile on his lips. His eyes don’t speak to me like before, but I’m looking into them and they’re dead eyes. I’m immersed in me and if I should see some signal, I miss it. We exchange a few nothing words on the state of who cares and I decide to go for it. You wanna talk, strangers are best.

“You really wanna know?”

He looks at me fixedly. After a short pause, like he just swallows something didn’t agree with him he says, “Tell me…”

Seems like there’s more but he clams up.

I swing my stool towards him and then back and stare into my half full glass. I wind up with a couple of long breaths. “Of all the months of the year, I remember January, because that’s when I started cooking my company’s books.”

The man gives me his ear. Good line, I’m thinking, like the first hook in a novel.  His eyes jump a little when I say January. It makes me wonder, but I let it pass. I warm to my narrative.

“I lived in Des Moines and did the books for this grain company. I had a wife and a couple of kids. I made decent money and no, I wasn’t happy, but life could be worse and I knew it. The kids grew and I worked a lot and my wife got tied up with soccer and plays and PTA stuff.

“She didn’t have time for me, even bedtime. Too tired? Headache? Either the same to me. I took it she began to lose interest in the things a relationship is supposed to be about, the saving graces, if you know what I mean. Ended up she did her job and I did mine.

“I didn’t see it then. Like I say, I figure she’d cooled off. It happens. You see it on TV all the time, disaffected people, sordid romances, whatever. So I worked and that’s what I did for my family. What more could she expect?

“Okay, I don’t get what I need at home so I start stopping at the local bar a mile or so from my house for a couple before going home nights, you know? If she speaks at all she might yell from the TV room, get your supper from the oven. Most nights I ate alone.

“This goes on a couple of years. Resentment builds, right? Well, bars are good places to pick up girls. Also true is hot, needy girls look for the lonesome single, right? Everybody’s looking to fill some void. So this gal comes along one night I’m sitting there minding my business and next thing you know I’m minding her business. She says her name is Millie. She’s cute and she’s hurting and I’m hurting and you got to know what happens.”

I have the sense the guy is tense and contained…like you can’t see a bomb ready to explode but you sense it. I’m too disconnected to read anything out of it.

“Upshot?” I say, still thinking of my story. “Suddenly I’m in need of money. I’m living for the first time in years. I’m enjoying myself. I start cooking the books. It’s easy. I’m Steady Eddie, right? The boss doesn’t suspect…only he does and I don’t see it.

“The yearly audit arrives, but instead of my boss asking me are we straight with the government and do we have plenty of cash reserves like always, he hires an outside company to do the work and next thing you know I’m indicted. Then I’m in jail.”

“That’s ten years ago. Now I got no wife and my kids have been adopted by her new husband and she won’t let me see them and I live in this piece of shit place even the rats don’t like.”

I run out of steam. I turn to look at the guy and I don’t like the look on his face. It’s tight and red and suddenly I stare at him, like what the hell did I say?

Now he speaks. Measured, clipped, holding back like on a short fuse. I swivel towards him again, confused.

“Well, Steady Eddie,” his words dripping with sarcasm, “this Millie, she was my wife. We patched things, but she couldn’t handle her betrayal. She killed herself the January after her affair with you. I’ve been waiting for you to get out. I searched a long time to find you. I’m going to help you…”

His coat opens and the arm he’s hiding comes out and in one motion he plunges a six-inch hunting knife into my belly.

He finishes, his voice filled with hate, “…out of this world.”

The pain is so bright I can’t catch my breath. I double over onto the bar. He gets up and starts to leave but stops, turns and says coldly though the haze of my roaring pain, “I remember January, too.”

Underbelly

THE VISTA CLAIMS my attention until suddenly I feel something wrong with my steering. I top the last rise going up the mountain on a left hand curve. It’s there that I feel a jiggle that shouldn’t be. For a time, while enjoying the beauty of my new Porsche, I let some business problems distract me. I’ve been driving on automatic pilot.

I step on the brake. Soft. WTF? I push harder and they sink to the floor. I didn’t need brakes going up but I would soon.

I’d smooth powered up to the seven thousand foot mountain pass in my new Cayenne going faster than I should. I always go too fast, but I believe speed limit signs reflect outdated 1950’s thinking. As I look for a place to stop, my active brain derails and I ruminate about speed in the 21st century.

Cars are better these days, better rubber, better brake linings, better steering, more safety gadgets and most highways are super good out west. They can handle speeds in excess of the posted limits every day of the week. And I love big, powerful engines. I seldom see a driver doesn’t agree with me.

I know the Man could kick those limit signs up to meet today’s conditions, but they wouldn’t. Lower speed limits slows drivers down, not for reasonability, but for fear of being stopped by Enforcement. More important, they represent a steady source of revenue for the town or State and a good revenue stream means a fat surplus; the golden grail of government. It demands of governors and legislators to spend it for the people and I expect it lines a few pockets for the clever ones.

I oughta know.

Okay. I’m thinking all this extraneous shit while I reach for the emergency brake with my fingers crossed. It works. Up ahead, a dirt and stone vista pull-off. I yank it up and veer onto this outlook built to handle half a dozen cars. The emergency brake stops me easy. I don’t think about it that second, but I do later on. I leave the brake on, shift into Park and shut the engine down. That’s ‘cause I’m reacting.

Then I think about it. I sit very still. I draw a few deep breaths. Okay, it scares me some because I’m already analyzing the whys and wherefores. When nothing happens and my heart gets back where it belongs I open the door. I leave it open.

First thing I gotta do, check under the car. The slight angle of the gravel parking area is okay. Just to be safe, I’ll kick up stone against the downside of each wheel.

I look around. Great view, mountains and valleys and the best fresh air in the world. Boulder sized rocks line the perimeter of the parking area. A sign at one end, vandalized by teens looking for a statement to make against the status quo says, “Danger – Drop Off.” Maybe that takes care of the Stupid Factor…I dunno. Lot of stupids out there.

For me, I wouldn’t blame the Man if I did something dumb like fall off a cliff, but then I think of that woman who spilt hot coffee in her lap and sued the restaurant. Then I think about the jury from another planet that gave her the big reward. What, she didn’t order hot coffee? She didn’t know it would be hot? She didn’t cause her own problem?

I shake my head. Back to now. No one in sight. I study the terrain. Could anybody be parked out of sight? A couple hundred yards or so are clear. I listen carefully. No mountain echo from cars laboring up the pass. Okay, nobody close. A fluke? I shake my head again. No fluke. You don’t get to run a gaming empire by believing in the Goodness of Man.

Something’s going on and I gotta find out. I got enemies who do bad things to people. Before I get out, I unlock my glove box and take my friend Mr. Badass Glock Nine in hand. I grab an extra hollow point magazine and pocket it.

Now on the ground, I take off my Armani jacket and walk it to one of the distant boulders, fold it carefully and set it down. Back at the car I lower myself to the ground and crawl under. Yeah, what I thought. Steering bolts loosened and the bottom of one lateral brake line same. Nice job. Fluid all over the place, but it wouldn’t be evident to the driver, especially one heading into the mountains. This Pro wanted me to be far away from anything before symptoms began and knew I’d be on my Reno run today.

I check for wires I don’t think belong. Yeah, right there. I trace them up into the engine and under the dash beside the cable bundle. My mind is working overtime. I want to kill a rival and send a message, what would I do? Blow him up’s a good way. Get rid of him somewhere far away with minimum collateral damage. Send a strong message to his loyal few.

It’s cool at seven thousand feet. I dust off and put my jacket back on. From what I can guess, I figure the Pro packed the engine with explosives. I reach in my pocket and finger my key, thankful that I never, ever leave my car with the key in it. In Las Vegas it’s a great habit to have.

I stand and listen again. Still clear. I walk across the road and lie down in a deep runoff ditch. I click my remote start.

Holy shit! What the hell did they put in the engine! The car goes up like an IED. I’d be in pieces Humpty-Dumpty with a map couldn’t put back together again.

Back to work. I get up and dust again from habit. Time to find a place to hide. I have an idea. The Porsche burns fiercely, but enough shattered bulk remains to hide behind if it cools before I get company. That will be my first line of offense. Now I walk back to the edge where the sign warns idiots not to get too close.

Drop-off, all right, but to the side of it where the slope graduates to a sensible angle, I see a possible hiding place safe enough so they can’t see me and close enough to get off a few good rounds. Glad I have no fear of heights. Below my second choice the mountain drops away about a thousand feet.

That gives me another idea. Very few patrols come over the mountains in summer. That I interpret to mean that the next car or truck to appear will be my “friends.” I want to welcome them in some fitting way.

I settle into the little declivity and put my ear to the ground. Nothing yet. I visualize probably two assassins seeing the cloud of black smoke rise above the foothills. I picture them smiling and cracking each other on the back and imagine a conversation.

“Let’s go,” one would say. He’d finger his gun.

“Boss wants me to bring back a piece,” the other one might say. He’d laugh.

I had it. Aaron Brustein, he’d be the one. Sneaky bastard. He would be elsewhere preserving his alibi. I wait a minute. His goons can’t be far away now. I put my ear down again. I hear a sound, faint but growing. I take the safety off the Glock. The car has stopped burning, but heat radiates at me. They’d be coming up the hill soon.  Do I dare chance it?

I’m not a coward and I don’t like people trying to kill me, so the whole thing really pisses me off. I move from my hiding place to a spot behind the tail of the Porsche. Smoke and heat rise straight up. It’s hot, but I can take it.

Perfect. I wait, gun in hand. I feel the fifteen shot magazine in my jacket pocket. Not likely I’ll need that. One chance, that’s all I’ll get. My lip curls in part of a smile. It’s all I’ll need.

My guess, the one who wants a piece of me will be riding shotgun. He’ll get out, gun in hand while the other looks front and checks his mirrors. Driver will have a gun, probably stashed on the center console, but convinced I’m dead, he’ll leave it there. Even in his hand, he’d be so close I couldn’t miss. I’ll plug “shotgun,” and then empty the magazine at the driver. It’ll be a cake walk.

I hear it plain now. A black Suburban crawls over the last rise. It pulls in and stops twenty feet from the smoking remnant. I sit on my haunches waiting. The car sits there for a long time. My legs start to cramp. Not now, I tell my body. Through a tiny window created by torn metal, I see the door open slowly. Figured. Brustein’s boys all right, Alonzo and Skippie. Alonzo gets out. He’s arguing with his partner.

I catch Skippie saying, “He’s dead. C’mon Alonzo, get back in.”

Asshole never had balls.

“Uh-uh,” Alonzo says back, “You know what the boss said. I gotta check. Some part of him is here. Make sure, he says.”

“Christ! Check then. I want to get out of here.”

Did I guess it! Alonzo gives him a look of contempt and moves away from the SUV, his eyes searching. Ten feet from the Porsche, I stand from behind my cover and shoot him, chest and head. Without waiting to see what damage I did, I turn to the Suburban and empty my Glock at the front seat, all thirteen remaining shots. I try to miss the front windshield. I do. Practice pays.

I hear a pitying cry and the big car starts to move. Idiot kept it in gear and his foot on the brake. What a rabbit! That’s my ride! I bolt from behind my cover and run at the big car. The passenger’s door is swinging shut and the Suburban is heading for the drop-off.

I grab for the door and catch the handle. I’m running sideways trying to keep my feet while yanking the door. It opens and I stumble but I’ve still got the door. I swing onto the high step and plunge onto the seat. Skippie is slumped with his head out the driver’s window. He’s covered in blood. He’s not my problem anymore.

With a hand I kick the shifter into neutral and yank on the emergency brake. The SUV crashes against the boulder but stops. I jump back out onto gravel and stand there transfixed, lungs heaving from unaccustomed effort. The boulder, dislodged from its place, moves out into space. It tumbles and disappears. I listen for several seconds until I hear it hit and the sound gets back to me with an echo not far behind.

I listen again. Dead silence. Much better. I check out the front damage on the big vehicle. It’s drivable. I finally get out my cell and call Captain John Levine, my contact with LVPD. I outline what happened.

“I’ll cover this end,” he says. “What are you going to do now?”

“Me? I’m going hunting.”

Incident at Northern Sky Lodge

I’VE NEVER BEEN here before. Hell, I’ve never been to Alaska before. Talk about big. I thought Maine covered more territory than I could possibly explore. This place? Miles of tundra, mountains that would literally take your breath away. I mean if you hankered to climb them, you’d need oxygen to breath. We weren’t doing that!

Curt and the boys from the Maine Big Game Hunting Club convinced me to spend the money and take the trip. Curt had been there before and emoted about the big state. They were so animated that Bob and I caught the fever. Little did I know.

Okay, so Curt Travers, Bob Fleece and me, that’s Jack Berson – I’m telling the story here – we prepare and put our affairs in order for an extended trip, you know? Packing to hunt in Alaska is not exactly the same as in the lower forty-eight. Plenty of books and brochures point out the what and why of it.

We catch a United Airlines flight to Anchorage, We get there safe, “flying the friendly skies” and all, pretty boring, but anticipation keeps us on our game. At the airport we find a small hanger, name above it and a sign below that, Flights to Anywhere in Alaska. The plane’s small and comes with a wild looking local prop jockey, guy named Randy Bull.

I’m the one says prop jockey.

“We call them bush pilots up here; take off and land on a 150 foot runway if need be.” He laughs.

“We want to fly up to Nenana Airport,” Curt says. Nenana is only ten miles or so north of Northern Sky Lodge where we’re going.

Randy frowns. “No can do. It’s closed for a few days, hanger fire. I’ll fly you to Clear Airport up near Anderson. You can get a car there to the lodge. Heard of the place; about fifty miles.

That didn’t seem bad. Fifty miles isn’t much in Maine. “Deal!”

Randy flies us to the airport. He’s not cheap but we know everything’s expensive up here. He earns his money in the changeable weather we run into on the way. Guy’s unflappable. I stop wondering about him being a prop jockey. We land, unload and get us a four wheel drive Jeep for off road. My Alaska map says Clear Lodge is pretty nearby.

“Why not stop here, Curt? It’s close and the territory’s wild enough,” I say.

“Nah. I got it on good authority that Northern Sky Lodge is the place to step off for hunting wolves. That’s what you wanted, right?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Stick with me, buddy. I won’t steer you wrong,” he says. “Alaska’s sectioned off for bear and moose and all the other big stuff. 20C, that’s the area we want. Season’s been cut to April 1st, but we’re under the wire on that. We’ll be fine.”

Bob drives. He doesn’t talk a lot. I sit in the rear seat and squirm this way and that seeing first only sights along the way. I find it exhilarating. Highway 3 is a good road. Alaska winters are hard on all roads, but the maintenance people keep up with it, seeing as there are so few highways, and considering the state’s over a half million square miles large.

I’m pumped. The others look pleased, too. We’re gonna have a great time, bag the limit and bring home trophies for the other club members to drool over.

That’s the plan. Ever hear how plans can oft times go astray? Me, too. Northern Sky Lodge is clean and well kept. It’s rustic, log cabin style and comfortable. The owners are Alaska stock. We discover they are selling the place. Just as an aside, I ask why.

“Wife and I want to retire and move south,” Brad Stepel, the owner says. He’s a big fellow and he looks capable. He’s wearing what I call tundra wear, loose cut heavy denim trousers with cargo pockets and a wool long sleeved red-checkered shirt. I can’t see his feet, but I’d bet he wears size twelve hunting boots 24/7. Behind him hanging on hooks on the knotty pine wall is a repeating rifle heavy enough to bring down elephants. I look and look away.

“But it’s so beautiful here,” I say. I don’t exactly have a bad feeling, but I want to conclude our check-in and get to my room. The guy is borderline scary.

“We’ve had the place for years and we’re ready. You interested?”

“Just wondering.” That ends the conversation. We get adjoining rooms and settle in for our week.

Marta’s his wife. She’s a small woman, careworn and no longer pretty.  She looks hardened by the place she lives in and maybe for the life she leads, who knows. She also looks – what – a little weird maybe? She doesn’t speak at all. Her husband’s the player. We ignore her.

Once removed from the hulking presence of the owner, we lighten up. Curt doesn’t seem bothered and Bob grunts and grins when I air my immediate concerns with them.

“Jesus, Jack, you gone paranoid?”

“No, just got some vibes you clowns missed is all.”

“Shit, there’s three of us. What’s he gonna do?”

“Yeah? Well, I’m locking my door and my windows tonight.”

They look at me funny, but there’s nothing else.

Bob speaks up. “Let’s figure out what we’re going to do.” He looks at his digital watch.

Curt says, “Look, it’s three o’clock, late winter time. That means we don’t have much more light. Let’s find a place for a few brews and get a good night’s sleep. Take a few to set up your packs for tomorrow and meet me in the lobby. You okay with that?”

We both say “Yeah, sure.” We separate and spend time, leave and lock our rooms and Curt is there when we arrive.

“I just asked Bart here where we could get a drink. No place close, he tells me, but he keeps beer around for guests, $6.00 a bottle. There’s a small lounge over there.” He points. “You good with that?”

“Steep for beer.” Bob says.

“You know nothing’s cheap up here.”

Bob looks cross for a second but nods. Brad walks in and unlocks his small bar.

“Take what you like and I’ll bill you later.”

“Sounds fair,” Curt says and reaches for a cold one. Bob follows and I grab one. The stuffed chairs are comfortable and we trade stories and we’re blitzed before we know it. Around ten-thirty we’ve had enough. I’d lined up the bottles all evening, kind of anal. I smile stupidly at my impressive assembly.

Brad is back in the private part of the lodge behind the desk. I see him sitting in a chair. I see him look at us from the corner of my eye as we head for our rooms. He’s staring. As I unlock my room I glance up. Unsmiling Marta is looking down the hallway at me. Maybe I am paranoid, but I don’t like what I’m feeling.

We’re pretty drunk and we crash right away, except I’m bothered so I can’t sleep. I can hear Bob snoring through the wall. I have the end room farthest from the lobby. Curt could be snoring too, but I wouldn’t know. I glance at the clock on the nightstand, eleven-fifteen.

My eyes finally start to get heavy, when I hear Bob stop snoring and then I hear a muffled scream. Something is not all right. I’m out of bed and heading for the door when the image of Brad’s face looms in front of me.

So I’m crazy. I get my rifle and chamber a bullet, go to my bed and sit there, my back against the headboard. I hold my rifle at the ready, aimed at the door. I’m scared shitless. I hear a click at the door and a key fumble in the lock, slow and quiet. I picture Bob in the next room dead, killed by this lodge owner driven mad by the loneliness of living far from anywhere, acting out some nightmare in his mind, who knows what or why.

The door opens a crack, then more and in the dim glow of the hallway nightlight, I see Marta, butcher knife in her raised hand as she rushes toward my bed clearly intent on murder.

I shake and tears come and I gulp and fire, but my aim is true. The thirty-ought six slug intended for my first gray wolf smashes into her chest. It blows her out into the corridor. She’s dead before she hits the floor.

I know she’s killed my buddies. I can sense it. I must find out, but what about Brad Stepel? He heard the shot. He must have. What would he do?

I wait. There is no other choice. Yes, there is. I get off the bed. In my bare feet I walk to the bathroom. I load another cartridge into the chamber. He’ll have a gun. It’s him or me.

I hear rapid footsteps. They stop at Marta’s body. There begins a keening wail so incongruous that for a moment I can’t fathom it. The sound goes on a long time. Stepel is grieving. Then, mixed in with the owner’s sound I pick out a siren.

Did Brad call the State Police? He must have. I pad to the door, rifle still ready. Once past the partially open door I see him on the corridor floor, covered in Marta’s blood, cradling her head.

Through his sobbing, he manages a few halting words. “Mr. Berson, she went off her meds. I didn’t know. There were no signs.”

He looks down at the bloody knife on the floor next to Marta. He begins to shake. The siren stops abruptly, and I hear the Lodge door slam. Footsteps; Brad’s name called. Silence, then a big trooper appears, gun drawn. I hear him shout.

“Drop the rifle, mister.”

I have a live round chambered, safety off. I slowly lean down and lay the weapon on the floor, my other hand held high, palm open. The Trooper watches me closely.

“Brad, what happened here?”

“Hey, Tom, not his fault. Marta went crazy. Check the two adjoining rooms. She probably killed the other guests.”

The Trooper asks me to put the safety on and hand him the rifle. I do. A quick check reveals what I fear most.

“Both dead. Sorry, mister.”

I give him my story and he accepts it. Self-defense. My turn to break down. My legs are jelly and I slide down the other wall and grieve.

I’m home now. The flight took far too long. My report at the gun club left a quiet, somber audience. I look back. I wanted to bring down a wolf and I killed a human being. They accepted my resignation.

That’s the end of my story, all but a memory I have to live with forever.

At Loggerheads

THE BIG RIG came lumbering slowly out of the low-lying fog. The truck announced its presence long before the Hatch family saw it. Sue and John stood silent beside their car. The Honda sat off the one lane dirt road at an odd angle, both passenger side wheels in a muddy ditch up to the rocker panels.

Sue gave a little cry of relief when she heard the flatulent diesel sound as the unseen driver eased off the accelerator. They’d been stuck for hours.  She couldn’t get warm wearing the light sweater she’d brought, but she couldn’t sit another minute in that car.

She looked at her son kicking in John’s arms. Jason needed food.  The last of the milk went an hour ago. The kid cried incessantly now. Damn John and his scenic shortcuts!

John took it on the chin first in her unhappy tirade and later in her pointed silence. It matched exactly the hush of the deep woods until Jason got started. John, for his part, bore Sue’s mood stoically.

He got them into it and he didn’t know how to get them out. Their Honda had stood them in all kinds of weather, but nothing did well in mud.

Sue’s petulant attitude didn’t help. He’d tried all the things a man will try, first with confidence and later in desperation.

The pine forest stood majestic in the coolness of the fall day. The fog that began in the lower valley after the sudden rainstorm had moved upland as the sun heated it from above. Now it covered the entire valley but not the high ground above them.

Looking up the hillside, searching for some inner peace, Sue thought the tall pines’ dark green needles should strike a pleasant contrast to the big patch of vivid blue sky that appeared after the quick storm. It could be a picture postcard, but her mood wouldn’t let her enjoy it.

Here they were, miles from civilization. They didn’t dare try to walk back to the seldom-traveled highway in mid-state Maine they’d left for this route because of bears. The woods were full of them. She wouldn’t even consider it, and no way did she want John leaving her and the baby.

“Ouuu!” she cried in utter frustration, “John, do something with Jason!

John had seen frustration in his wife in their past ten years of marriage. He’d just have to wait it out.

He said as gently as he could, “We’ll get out of here, honey. I’m doing the best I can.”

“You’ve said that five times and we’re still here!” she screamed.

John subsided. He walked with his son in his arms on the nearly dry crown of the road. Motion sometimes distracted Jason. Not this time. His clock said time to eat so he let his parents know.

John looked at the sun. Nearly noon. He pictured his watch on his dresser at home. Lot of good it did there, and the car’s electric clock had quit a couple of months ago. Meant to have it fixed…the road to hell, he thought.

This lark he’d planned didn’t turn out that way. Route 633 had to be five miles back, at least. He rued his decision after a mile but couldn’t find a turnaround. Maybe at the next curve he’d find a place, but it didn’t happen.

The sudden downpour, gone as fast as it came, turned the road into a quagmire. It came on so quickly and hard he had to stop. He literally couldn’t see the road. It worried him that they were still going up the side of this mountain. Once he started driving again, he feared they’d be in trouble, only a matter of time.

Out of the fog the big Mack logger nosed its way upward. The driver saw them and stopped. A man his late thirties got out of the cab, nimbly caught the step and jumped to the ground. He wore an insulated red and white, checkered flannel shirt with sleeves that came just above his wrists. He had plenty of muscle under the shirt. He looked them over and then at the Honda and stood silently for a moment.

“Private road, mistah,” he said in his quaint Maine accent. “Didn’t yuh see the sign back theah?”

No,” John said, “I didn’t see any sign. My map showed this road and I thought it went to a scenic overlook.” John still had Jason and he whimpered and fussed even as John bounced him in his arms.

“Yuh got a bit of the way up the hill.”

“I know. I was looking for a place to turn around, but it kept going up and up.”

“Ay-uh. No place to turn fur another mile, I guess.”

“Then we got the rain and instant mud and you can see what happened.”

“This road’ll handle a rig. That little pip-squeak car’s no good here.”

“I found that out.”

“Lemme see thet map o yourn.”

John handed the baby to Sue and she cooed at Jason and bounced him some more without much success. John went into the passenger’s side of their car and grabbed the map off the dash. The logger didn’t introduce himself. John went up to him and turned so they could both look.

“This is where I think we are.” He pointed to a place on the map.

“Ay-uh. I kin see whayah yuh made yuh mistake. Yuh see this nub ovah heah?” the man pointed.

“Yes.”

“Now, yuh see this nub ovah heah?”

“I’m on the wrong mountain, aren’t I?”

“Ay-uh.”

“Can you help us out and get us turned around?”

“Well,” the man said, “yer trespassin’ and Mr. Mulgrave don’t take kindly to trespassers.”

The man didn’t sound at all friendly.

“Look, all we want is to turn around and get out of here. You can’t pass my car. It’s blocking the road.”

“That’s not a problem, mistah. I kin push you right over the edge there. Yuh see the edge there, don’t yuh?”

John looked involuntarily. He didn’t like the steep down-slope at all. Sparse growth and fifty feet further down a cliff that dropped out of sight.

Now the guy looked mean. John gauged what kind of man he could be. Thin but hard muscled, he couldn’t weigh more than one fifty. John had him by thirty pounds. Pretty obviously the man had an active physical life and worked hard at it. John had a desk job a few years of sitting away from his iron pumping days. He doubted he’d be a match for this stranger.

Sue took this moment to get into the conversation. “Look, mister, we’re in your way and you want us out of your way, right?”

For the first time the man really looked at her. Cute little thing. Her turned up nose kinda reminded him of his dead sister Maude. About the same age, too. Two years since the cancer got her. He loved his Sissy, so ‘bout that time he told God to go screw.

The gal wore a light blue dress with some kind of lacy white stuff bordering the edges, made for riding comfort in a car, but not for standing around outside in a mountain wilderness. Her light sweater wouldn’t cut a Maine wind, no how. Like he’d asked, he saw her shiver.

She had a cute kid, too; would have been cute if he wasn’t caterwauling right about now. The woman tried to push its face against her breast to muffle the noise. That just made him notice her chest.

Kid didn’t matter, but Mr. Mulgrave had strict instructions about people nosing around. He had a lot to lose if anyone saw his operation and got outsiders involved. Pretty likely they’d see it if he got them to a turnaround.

“That’s right, little lady.”

“So won’t you help us?”

The man pondered. Foxy looking thing. His eyes narrowed. “Maybe I kin. Maybe yuh kin do somethin’ for me. Maybe yuh kin help me a bit and maybe then I kin help you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Flat out, I ain’t been with a woman fer a real long time. I’m feelin’ a need.”

“You don’t mean…?”

The man stared at her.

John gaped at the two and horror came to his face.

“Wait just a minute!” he said, “What you’re suggesting you’re going to have to do over my dead body. Forget it, mister!

“You got nothin’ tuh say, buddy. I’m talkin’ tuh the lady. But since yer talkin’, you wouldn’t have a problem with returnin’ one favor fer another, would yuh?”

John saw white! He felt hot all over. Nobody could do this. Maine was part of a civilized country, wasn’t it?

The scenario had turned strange and ugly. He decided he couldn’t argue with the guy and no man would rape his wife before he lay stone cold dead trying to prevent it.

“You’re doing nothing, mister. Who the hell do you think you are?”

Sue looked confused for a moment, but now she could see a confrontation coming and she could stop it.

“John, let me talk to him.”

“No, Sue. Don’t you know what’s going on here?”

“Yes, I do. I want to talk to him.”

“No!”

“Excuse me,” she said to the man, and took John’s hand and led him away out of earshot.

The trucker watched with interest while Sue in low but intense conversation gesticulated wildly and John gestured back with finality. Finally he threw his hands up in disgust, turned and walked rapidly back to confront the man.

“Under no circumstances am I going to give my wife to you. Forget it! She has nothing more to say.”

“Whatevah.”

The logger turned, walked back to the truck and quickly got in. John divined his next move. He ran to the idling truck as the driver put the rig into low gear. With a rage he hadn’t felt since he’d pasted that bully Bobby Hunt in the face as a boy, John jumped onto the step, reached through the open window and punched the man in the side of the head.

Momentarily stunning the man, John pressed his advantage, grabbed his coat and pulled him toward the driver’s window. The driver’s foot came off the clutch and the big truck started forward. John hung on, one arm around the man’s neck as the other reached wildly for the steering wheel.

Fifteen feet from the Honda, Sue, between the car and the oncoming truck, screamed and tried to run up the hillside, slipped on mud in the roadside gully and went down with the baby, instinctively twisting to save Jason.

Her head hit a rock. She lay suddenly quiet and still, while the baby screamed on her chest. The truck headed directly for her legs.

John hit the driver full in the face. Then he grabbed the wheel desperately, turning it hard to the right. The vehicle found the edge and went over, missing Sue’s legs by inches.

As the big truck’s rear wheels cleared the road and the rig started slowly down the steep slope, the man stirred and sat up.

John grabbed his neck and squeezed. With a violent twist to the left, the man hit John in the face and John reeled away, lost for a moment. As he fell back the crook of his arm found the outside mirror and hung him up. Recovering quickly, he savagely went back through the window and hit and gouged at the man. They were twenty-five feet down the slope and gaining speed.

The man’s foot found the air brakes. Fending John off, he stomped on the pedal. The engine stalled, but the brakes couldn’t stop the rig. On wet ground ten tons of steel riding on ten huge rubber tires slid slowly toward the precipice, making long, reddish dual skid marks.

Ten feet…five…John screamed a horrible epithet and fell away from the truck as the front end went over the cliff. John grabbed at the hardy root on a stunted tree. It tore away and he slid closer to the brink. He grabbed wildly for another. It held. He lay, feet out over space, eyes closed, terror in his heart.

He heard a cry with a sob and then the wrenching sound of the loggers rig leaving the ground on its way over. Sound followed sound, first nothing but a wail, then crashing, crashing, crashing, trees going over forever…then silence.

Sue! Jason!

He pulled himself carefully up and got ground under him. His gorge rose. He swallowed it back. Painfully, he grabbed any handhold he could find as he worked his way up the hill. His fingers began to bleed and mix with blood from his scored knuckles. He wore holes in his pants and his face felt numb.

Not as bad as the other guy, he thought with well-deserved malice.

Nearing the road he heard Jason’s healthy cry and as he gained the crest, he saw the baby on unmoving Sue’s chest, her arm across him.

With a catch in his throat, he called, “Sue?”

With halting steps he walked to his wife. Bloody ground under her head and the sharp rock next to her told the story. He bent down and felt. Pulse weak but regular. He gently moved her arm and gathered up the baby. Jason whimpered in his daddy’s arms.

Sue needed attention. Jason would have to wait. He carried the baby to the car and locked him into his car seat. Grabbing the first aid kit from the passenger’s side door well, he went to the trunk and got the picnic blanket out. He felt Sue over. Only the head wound. She moaned.

“Sue?”

Gradually she came to. He gentled her in his arms.

Sue’s eyes focused and she let out a short scream as a nightmare passed through her and reality crept in. When he could see reason in her eyes, he told her the man had gone and wouldn’t be back. She clung to him.

The road dried by mid-afternoon. John had Sue get in the drivers seat and told her how to rock the automatic up one side of the rut he’d made, stand on the brake while she shifted and then run up the other side to gradually widen the lock he’d placed on the right wheels. While she did that, he pushed; first front and then rear. In that manner they eventually got free of nature’s muddy trap.

They drove the mile the man said would have the first turnaround and found it. They also found a side valley with several acres of healthy growing marijuana plants. The authorities would be very interested in the crop. What was the owner’s name…Mulgrave…yes…Mulgrave.

The police would no doubt be interested in another story they had to tell, too.

Rock, Scissors, Paper

I FUMED ACROSS half of Kansas’s boring terrain, fields upon fields of low, nondescript greenery. The upside? I had lots of time to think. That I needed, because I’d picked a bold and possibly dangerous solution to a problem that begged a solution. I’m on my way to Susank to take my sister away from her abusive husband.

Twelve hundred eighty seven miles from my home in Hershey; twelve hundred eighty seven angry miles. My wife said I shouldn’t make the trip. She tried to make me be reasonable.

“Too much for your heart, Jake. I know how much you love your sister, but…”

“I’m going, Maeve. Don’t stop me,” I told her. “The bastard didn’t believe me. I’m going to make a pretzel out of him.”

“Don’t talk like that. He’s bigger than you.”

“Yeah, well, I’m madder than him. Special Ops training should do the trick.”

“C’mon, Jake, that was ‘Desert Storm!’”

“You don’t forget,” I said, convincing myself in the process.

She tried a few low blows. I’m not twenty-seven any more. What if he hurts me badly? What if he kills me? What about Amy? Our daughter needs a father. What about your management job at the Hershey plant? And the lowest blow of all. What about her? She loved me, but at the moment I’d blocked everything she said with white-hot anger and no room for reason.

“My sister, Maeve, my sister!” I tried to brush her arguments aside. “I’m not going to do anything stupid.”

She got quiet about then. She didn’t believe me, except that I’d be going and she knew it.

I don’t tell her I had an equalizer and I meant to use it if my “visit” didn’t work to my satisfaction. I took my S&W 32 out of the lockbox yesterday, loaded and locked, relocked the empty box and slid the gun into my Pathfinder’s glovebox.

Angry is a kind of craziness.

I kept tight control over my features. She’d know she’d lost the argument to pigheadedness. I’d had it with the phone calls and Judy’s tears and the secret confirmation I got from my call to boyhood friend Geoff Wilucz, who still lived in that little town of thirty-four souls.

He told me Dave lost his job several months ago. He’d descended into drink to compensate and he wasn’t fun to be around. Geoff said he’d stopped being neighborly. I couldn’t tell Maeve that.

Then I wondered why Judy hadn’t shared with me. I answered my own thought. Probably knew I’d act like I’m acting. Then the disaster of my phone call to Dave. I lost it. I ended up calling him all sorts of names and I threatened him. He laughed at me and hung up. Nobody did that to me!

I gave it the test of time, twelve hundred miles of it. I left Hershey with an edge of angst, but that I directed to my wife for lying to her. It didn’t set well. We had no secrets. I grimaced at that pronouncement. If she had a secret, I wouldn’t know, right? And now I had one and she didn’t know, except we’d been married almost thirty years and if anybody knew me, she did.

My first day driving I went all out; sixteen hours seething inside kept my body at a long distance edge so I stayed plenty alert. I did most of it on the I-70 Interstate, cruise set on seventy. I found a Comfort Inn off the highway for the night in Topeka. My anger fell away and I slept the sleep of the righteous. Before climbing under the covers I thought about what Maeve might do. It gave me pause. Did she give up a little too quick?

If I were her, what would I do? I would call ahead to the Kansas State Police and have a welcoming committee waiting for me, but would she do that? I didn’t think so, but she might. She knew how upset I could get and she knew what I could do…used to do.

Hell with it! I’d cast the dice and what would be, would be. I patted the pocket with the lockbox key. She wouldn’t know about the gun and the idea wouldn’t occur to her; that I believed.

My triple bypass now two years in the past and with the blessings of the best recovery my surgeon had seen in years beating inside, I thought about my plan for maybe the thirtieth time. I’d arrive unannounced. Dave might be home, but likely he’d be over at Moe’s Bar in Beaver.

I gave some thought to the price his mortgage paid toward his drinking. The anxiety in Judy’s voice in our final conversation convinced me it would get worse for her before it got better. That’s when I made my decision to go for the showdown.

I left Topeka around ten, figuring I’d get to my sister’s place about one-thirty, give or take. I’d be ready for anything, but truly expected the confrontation in the late evening.

A niggling thought tickled my mind. What if Maeve called Judy; put her on alert? I could picture it. Put it in the mix, I told my brain. What would Judy do? I considered it as I drove the last boring stretch of the 189 off I-70, a knife straight road girdled by flat green fields. When I ran out of that road, I made a left and a right onto Susank Road with rising anticipation. It had been years since I had a knockdown, drag out. I’d stayed in shape. I could do it.

There, a left onto unpaved Pope Street. The Pathfinder raised a cloud of dust behind me. I could see Judy’s place with its add-on’s and the miscellaneous mechanical crap Dave left to rot behind the shed. Little place – testament to Dave’s ineptness or to laziness? I believe he tried hard for some years, but never got anywhere and I sensed his resentment through my phone conversations with Judy. She made excuses for him right along.

I couldn’t understand it, but I’d read somewhere that a lot of women stuck by their husbands even after they started beating on them. We’d had conversations and Judy always took his side, until about a year ago when Dave threw the bills across the room and then slapped her when she tried to confront him about it. The abuse began and escalated over the coming months. Judy wouldn’t call the police and unless she made a complaint, they couldn’t act. The resident State trooper, a guy named Crowley told me that when I tried.

Three days ago my last conversation with Judy did it. I would do something. The law could do nothing, I’d been told. She would do nothing, she sobbed. She loved him.

I drove onto Judy and Dave’s property. I didn’t see his truck, so I figured he’d gone to Mo’s. I presumed I’d have time to talk to Judy, to convince her that my appearance could begin a new life for her, that she’d go to a shelter while she divorced the bastard, or failing that, that I would convince Dave to get some help.

How wrong I could be. I parked, got out, knocked on the front door and after a few moments the door opened a few inches.

“Surprise!” I cried and threw my arms up. Then I saw Judy as the early afternoon light settled on her features. Blood moved slowly down her cheeks and I saw welts on her once pretty face. My face got hot and my rage became a force of nature. I pushed into Judy’s house without thinking.

Jake, NO!” she yelled. Just then she was yanked violently out of sight. Dave hulked into the doorway. Damn it, Maeve did call her after all. I backed up fast.

“So, you little piss-ant,” Dave started, “you’re going to do what to me?” In his hand he held an eight-inch kitchen knife. “I think I’ll cut you up, asshole.”

With that he lunged, the knife aimed for my stomach. If my adrenaline hadn’t been working overtime from the moment I saw Judy—his mistake—he would have impaled me and game over. I jerked backwards and twisted to the side, grabbed his arm at the wrist with my left hand and pulled hard. Not expecting it, Dave’s considerable bulk came through the doorway and his foot caught on the threshold. He crashed face down on the dirt. He still had the knife.

With amazing forethought I’d worn heavy brogans for the confrontation. I stomped on his hand and he let go with a cry. I kicked the knife ten feet away. He started to rise. I had less than a couple of seconds to reach behind and pull my Smith and Wesson from my belt. I bent down, stuck it in his ear, hard, and shouted, “Move, you simpleton. All I want to do is to put a bullet in your brain!”

He deflated quickly. “You wouldn’t do that,” he said, but didn’t sound sure.

“Find out! Move, you bastard.” I called to Judy, who had appeared back in the doorway. “Are you through with this piece of trash now, Sis?” Rock.

“Yes I am. I’m calling the police, Jake.” In a few seconds Jake heard her talking to the resident Trooper. She hung up. Scissors.

“He’ll be here in five minutes, Jake.” Then she started to cry. Paper.

Epilogue

Aftermath is always anticlimax. I told the trooper I’d get Judy to the nearest medical facility and get her fixed up. Crowley led Dave away in cuffs. Judy agreed to testify against her husband.

I had to prove I had a carry permit in Pennsylvania. Trooper Crowley advised me that didn’t hold for Kansas, but considering the outcome, he wouldn’t give me grief about it.

“Lock it in your glovebox on the way home, okay?” I said okay.

After the police presence departed, and we were on the way to the Walk-in, Judy and I had a heart to heart. Judy wanted to stay in Susank. The trooper assured her Dave would not bother her again, that his next stop was the county jail and after that, someplace even more impressive.

Judy had decisions to make and plenty of time to make them. I’d better call home soon. I had a story to tell and a bit of forgiveness to ask for.

The Overlook

WE WANTED TO go north for our honeymoon. Ski, snowboard, lounge in the lodge at a small, intimate table near the big fireplace and sip pińa coladas, sex – lots of it – the whole magilla.

I-91 north, a straight shot most of the way to Vermont’s Mt. Snow, the road silky smooth and not congested now that we’d passed through the sprawl of Springfield. Multiple lanes spread out in front of us while the black ribbon of highway made soft the hum of our tires.

I tried a few bars of “I’ll be Loving You” in my off-key way, except I sang, “I AM Loving You,” and then turned from the wheel and leered at Sherry.

“Rich! Stop! Stop!” she laughed, “I could still have this annulled, you know.”

I stuck out my tongue. “What the priest don’t know can’t hurt me,” I said.

She giggled. “Rich, you’re not like this. You gonna get normal soon?”

“You like last night?”

“Umm…” She got a dreamy look.

That’s normal,” I said.

“Yeaaaaaah…” she strung the word out and for a moment Sherry’s face kind of glowed.

Had to be pleasure. We’d known each other in the Biblical sense for quite a time. I mean, who doesn’t check out the merchandise these days, I mean, both ways. It’s practically required these days, except maybe in enclaves of religious fervor. I judge not which is best for humanity, only that that’s my sense of it.

Only young once, Dad used to say.

I glanced at the dash clock; near noon. We’d left New London and all the people we cared about mid-morning Saturday with waves and good wishes and my stomach had just announced that I wanted food. We had drinks and sandwiches in the cooler in back and munchy chips up front.

“Lunch?”

“Hungry bear?”

I nodded. “Couple, three miles I can pull off at the overlook.”

Sherry looked at me and waited.

“Great view.”

“I don’t know it.”

“Never stopped there before?”

“Nope.”

“You’ll like it.”

We had met in a local bar at the end of 2016. New Year’s Party, one of those you pay a lot for to meet mostly strangers. Yeah, I know; a bar. I saw her in the crowd. Foxy, short cut auburn hair, sequined vest, black body hugging skirt, brilliant, white-toothed smile, gregarious.

Everything about her said playtime. Had to have her. Now a year later we’re married. We knew about our bodies. That’s easy, but how deeply did we really know each other?  We were about to find out.

I disconnected from the present and dipped again to December 31st, last year. We’d each given the other a story, superficial, mostly true. It always starts that way. Give a little, get a little, but both knew why we’d hooked up.

She worked for an ad agency in our town and I had a growing Internet business. A lot of .com’s had hit the tubes, but I’d set mine up for the long haul. For two years I’d watched the money roll in. I could afford our time away.

A sign appeared, rest stop, two miles. I liked in particular that the highway department had left a line of trees and brush between us and the parking area. We couldn’t see and barely heard the muffled sounds of speeding vehicles only thirty yards west of us. Here we could forget the frenetic pace for a few minutes and regroup.

Most of all I loved to gander at the Connecticut Valley watershed that stretched east of us to the hazy horizon. It held a river, flatland farming dotted with homes, and communities that didn’t sully the pristine scene as far as the eye could see. We weren’t very high up, but the vastness of the scene always awed me.

I pulled off the highway and slowed on the long ramp. The parking area opened up. Empty. I’d never pulled in before to find no one at all.

A first for everything, I thought.

I angled into a nearby space, stopped, got out, went to the back deck and opened it up. Clothes, snowboards and short, downhill skis suited to hard-pack took up the lengthy space between the storage area and the front seat backs, but stopped short of encroaching on the space over the front seat armrest, that is, they fit perfectly.

I grabbed the small ice chest and set it on the ground, made a space on the tailgate for our rumps and Sherry brought the bag of munchies out with her. Before sitting, she walked into my knees and I spread them to accommodate her. She planted a delicious kiss on my lips while shoving her considerable womanhood into my chest. Her brown eyes looked deep into mine.

“Love you, Rich.”

“You’d better save that for later.” I felt substantial stirrings below mid-line. “You know how weak I am.”

Sherry smiled knowingly, disengaged and sat beside me. We ate tuna sandwiches with chips and sucked down a couple of Cokes.

Rejuvenated, I said, “A week of skiing…and debauchery, of course, awaits.”

Her excited trill hit the mark. With my mind in a state of emotional disorder, I quickly packed things away, closed the rear gate and got behind the wheel. Sherry leaned over for another smooch, with energy.

I backed a few feet and swung to head for the ramp back to the highway. Toward the end of the parking area I caught something out of place and glanced at it. Piece of broken fence. Most of the area was precipitous, but not, in my opinion, dangerous…except right there. Where the highway department had put up a barrier, the ground dropped away maybe seventy feet, not huge, but plenty deadly.

I stopped. Sherry looked at me and I gestured.

“That doesn’t look good,” I said.

She glanced and looked away quickly. Very odd.

“Not your problem, Rich,” Sherry said, looking straight ahead. “Let’s hit the highway.”

“No, no. I’m going to take a look.” I stopped quickly and put my Forester in Park.

“Rich…?” I heard an edge to her voice I hadn’t heard before. Honeymoon…not the time for it. I looked at her. So far she’d played it right, in my view, deferring to me in most matters or talking out our few differences, but this?

“What if somebody just went through there and is hurt?”

“C’mon Rich, not your problem. I wanna go now!”

What’s with her? Fear? Lack of compassion?

“Sherry, I’m going to look.”

Anger flashed in her eyes, a totally new thing. Not just disturbed, her face flushed and twisted and in that instant I saw her in a less appealing light, the kind that does not bode well for a honeymoon or for any minute thereafter. We’d had disagreements before, but they ended in loving, or an arm tap or some off color remark that made each of us laugh. I loved that about her.

This I didn’t like at all. In this she tried to wrest control, to overpower not with persuasion, but brutishly. Unbidden thoughts ran swiftly though my mind. Marriage, a control gate? Get the guy, and after it’s solid, take over? How much did I know about my wife, after all?

I’m the kind of guy who always paid attention to balance in a relationship. Fifty-fifty. I believed in compromise, even giving in occasionally, so long as you did it without surrender. It empowered another’s personality and assisted self-worth. Action, with the right person, sent the same message.

I raised my voice in warning and said “Sherry, I’m checking this out,” opened the door and got out. Instead of subsiding, she made inarticulate sounds…furious…blazing.

Something in the back of my mind said, “Protect yourself.” I reached back in, turned the engine off and grabbed the key. I hoped she would see it as a firm denial of her attitude and bring her back to center. As a gamble I knew it could have the opposite effect.

I approached the break, some five feet ahead of me. As I reached the drop-off, I smelled gas and oil. Thin smoke rose toward me, oil on a hot engine maybe. I couldn’t see it where we’d parked earlier. Something went over not long before, maybe minutes. I squinted a little to focus my slightly myopic eyes. Yeah, something, a black SUV wedged in the trees fifty feet down. No sounds and too steep for me.

I heard the passenger’s door slam. I glanced back to see Sherry come running at me. In her wild eyes I saw hatred. It threw me off. What did I do?

She raised her fists to me and pummeled my chest. I let her for a few seconds – she didn’t hurt me and maybe she’d run down quicker that way – and then I grabbed her wrists firmly but not painfully to make her stop.

“Sherry, are you mad? Sherry!” I shook her.

That had some effect. The fire went out and she wilted against me.

“Honey, what’s going on?” I said. She started to sob. I let her get it out of her system. Finally she pushed away and I released her.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, her breath catching. “I never told you about my real mother and father. I owe you this.”

“What?”

“Promise you’ll listen and say nothing until I finish.”

I searched her face. “Okay.”

It came out, her deep, dark secret. She’d hidden it well. The parents I’d met she called hers, and from what I’d seen, they were. They were adoptive parents, I learned, and subsequent to Sherry’s confinement in a sanatorium for a year while strange, bearded doctors got her head on straight after her meltdown, they had taken her in and made her their own daughter.

“The truth, Rich, and the only thing I have kept from you, is that my parents were in an accident and were killed. Ten years ago. Just like this, Rich. Through a fence, over and down.” She shuddered.

“It freaked me. I couldn’t handle it. I buried it. I couldn’t tell you. What would you think? I thought I could live with it, but I can’t. I’m so sorry. I love you, Rich. What are you going to do?”

I held up a flat hand and walked back to the car. Reaching inside, I retrieved my cell and dialed 911.

“I want to report an accident.” I gave the details and finished with, “Hurry!”

Sherry stood stricken, not daring to move, as if the fragile moment might break and sweep away the dream she had finally attained. I wandered for a time, thinking, waiting for the police, readjusting my brain to take in what I’d heard.

Soon I heard sirens and then the parking area filled with emergency vehicles. After the police interviewed me, I walked back to Sherry. I’d done my thinking and made my decision. Life had to go on. With best wishes toward the accident victims I turned to Sherry.

“No other secrets, right?”

“No.”

“Let’s go skiing.”

Appreciation Profile

“HOW ABOUT A hug?” he says.

“Okay,” she replies. It comes out as a sigh. She’s mad at him. She doesn’t want to, but that engaging quirk of his lip takes some of the steam out of her. She relaxes a little. They come together. The hug is silent, warm, and tingly and costs them nothing. It brings a smile to both peoples lips.

“We should do this more often,” she says.

“It does have a leavening effect on our relationship, doesn’t it?”

“Yes. I forgot what I was mad at you about.”

“Must have been awful,” he says, still holding on.

It comes to her. She’s never far from the moment, not ever. She operates on a different level from him and he idly wonders as the next statement spills from her mouth, if living in the moment one hundred percent wouldn’t be better than coming to it as he does, kind of sidelong, detached, transported into it rather than being there.

He’s not going to change. She’s not going to change. The thought is absurd in the circumstance, and yet it does not surprise him. It’s who he is.

She says, “You’re a beast, you know.”

“Moi?” his mispronounced French is his signature. The tone of voice softens the word. Maybe they can talk this new thing out with more light and less heat. His indiscretion couldn’t be monolithic, after all.

“Yes, but I’ll save it until the next time.”

“That sounds a bit more like you.” He can’t help it. He should not have uttered the words but they came out. Like the voice of doom, it goads her.

“Just what do you mean by that?” Item: feelings can change in a heartbeat.

She can get so…er…find a good term…moody sometimes, he thinks. Two steps back, but he responds adroitly. “It is my dear, one of the things I love about you.”

“And what is that?” She moves away from his embrace and stands still in the kitchen, but the impression of her words is all hands on hips. Her hackles are right back up again.

Dig out; dig deeper? He gives it a shot.

“The straightforward honesty you project in all things. I had a wife who stabbed me in the heart, but I never saw it coming. She was devious and dishonest. You are not. It may hurt to hear what you have to say, but at least you are up front. Thank you for that.”

This from one imperfect soul to another, he thinks but does not say.

He has alluded to her first husband obliquely. This is part of a strategy that has worked in the past and he knows she will recognize it. She’s not perfect and she accepts that on a personal level, but to admit it in a confrontational situation wouldn’t be her.

They are both running true to form. Their knowledge of each other and how they parry is classic. They have had many years together and know one another as much as two people can. Although the outcome is not preordained, they are giving it their best shots, and they know their fail-safe points.

All that he said came from his heart. He hoped she would accept it as being honest and forthright.

She ponders a few moments, her face impassive, and then says, “Okay, husband. Look, I have shopping and we’re going out later to a movie. We’d better seal this with another hug, don’t you think?

Gets right to it! We embrace. He relaxes. She is healed and he is no longer raw.

She goes her way. He goes his. A potential rift is sealed. He gets to thinking it over and decides that appreciation is oft-times better molded into a scene than spoken. It’s a healthier way. Words are cheap. Actions speak louder than any professed uttering. They have the same meaning as the spoken word, but are more permanent.

A good result is unbeatable. He thinks that we all stand on the head of a pin and balance is the only force that keeps us from the abyss. He likes that thought.

Summer Vacation

JULY 1ST. WE drive north because we always drive south at the beginning of summer and I don’t want to do what we always do. My wife wants the old, comfortable way, but I get my back up and decide she could do something I want this year. She can’t reason with me.

That’s her big forte, reason. She finally gives in. This is why.

My headaches had been coming with increased frequency. That started a year ago. Eventually I went to my lady GP and she referred me to a specialist. I railed to my wife about like why should I go to her at all, half serious, half in jest. I said it’s like she didn’t know anything.

I have a fever or a pain and it’s, “Oh, you’re sick. I better send you to a specialist.”

I wonder what commission she got on me. Like, would I go to her because I’m well?

“Why don’t you change doctors?” my wife asks.

My answer: they’re all the same in my book. At least this one’s good looking. Smells good, too. Okay, so maybe I’m oversexed. I just do the eye thing and sniff the air she passes through. It’s not like I don’t know I’m married. It’s not like I don’t know what side my bread is buttered on. I’m a male. We’re hardwired for it. I read that somewhere.

Getting back, the headaches began with tightness across my forehead. It didn’t really hurt much at first, just something new. I read somewhere that the first twenty-five years you get growing pains and the rest of your time is dying pains, so I ignored it.

That pretty much answers it for me so I experiment with ibuprofen and aspirin and other stuff to see which one works best and eventually settle on ibuprofen. Six months into when I’m first aware, I mention it to my wife and she says go to the doctor and why’d you wait so long?

“Because it hurts enough now,” I say. I leave it as a question on my lips.

“Stupido! So now I should worry?”

“Nah, it’s not that bad, just more.”

“You gonna make an appointment or do I have to do it for you?”

“I’ll do it. Geez!”

So I go to my GP and she sends me to a specialist. And I got a brain tumor. And it’s growing. I can still function with pain meds and the doc specialist puts me though chemo and I’m in between sessions and our vacation comes up and I want to go north. I gotta say my wife gave up easy. Maybe too easy. I give that some thought.

So we’re on the road. I wanna go to Canada. I haven’t been there in a lot of years and I wanna go, so she stays mum on the subject, and she’s sitting by my side and we’re grabbing big breaths of clean air in our little convertible and the pain isn’t getting past the good way I’m feeling so all’s well, way I figure.

We go to the Bay of Fundy, stopover in New Brunswick and cruise Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia and see a bunch of sights like Hopewell Rocks and fishing boats lying on their sides waiting for the fifteen foot tide to come in and the Tidal Bore in Truro and this sharp pain begins behind my eyes and I don’t let my wife see this new thing and I’m getting worried, too, but I don’t want to ruin it for either of us, so I hide it.

I should be smarter, because I’m getting it that I really am sicker than the doc’s best guess or maybe it’s growing faster or something. Anyway, I have a choice. I’m in control. My wife doesn’t like to drive. She can do it, no problem, but she likes me behind the wheel and she’s really down on big highways.

Well, we get up at the B&B on our last day before heading back to the States and I’m in the bathroom and this pain hits me like a sledgehammer and holy mackerel, I can’t see for a few seconds and sweat breaks out across my brow and I’m glad my wife is still sleeping, only she’s not, because I thought I held in the groan but it got out and she’s standing at the door and there’s this expression on her face I hope I won’t see again in the future.

“Mickey?” It’s accusatory.

I’m still in pain and she knows it’s worse than ever.

“I’m driving today,” she says.

“Yes, you are, honey.”

“I’m taking you to the local hospital.”

“No, it’ll pass. I’ll be okay, but we gotta head for home, for sure.”

She mulls that. You don’t pull wool over her eyes for long.

“I’m calling the doctor.”

“No.”

“I’m calling the doctor.”

“Okay.” I say this because it’s hard to see again.

This B&B has long distance calling, lot of business from the States, I speculate. She dials out. She waits a time and I hear her side of the conversation with various lengthy pauses.

“Dr. Schwimmer, please? Lola Wright calling. It’s about Mickey.”

“Can I reach him? It’s important.” Anxious.

“He’s what?” Angry.

“Who’s covering?” Demanding.

“He won’t do. No, stop. Listen. You need to locate Dr. Schwimmer immediately and have him call me here. I’m out of the country.”

“You’re not listening. I said Dr. Schwimmer, NOW!” She’s going to follow the cord right up that Receptionists mouthpiece.

“Let me talk to the office manager.” Softer, controlled, dangerous.

“Carol, that ditz you have answering your phones needs counseling or firing. Mickey has taken a turn for the worse and we’re in Nova Scotia. I need advice from Mickey’s doctor now.”

“A fishing trip? Does he have a cell phone?” Scary, quiet, measured, palpable.

“Try to get him.” Serious, holding back. I see her face working.

“Carol, I don’t care. GET HIM!” They can hear Lola in Halifax.

“I’ll be waiting by this phone.” She gives the number and hangs up. She looks at me. I feel pasty.

“Mickey, you better lie down. You don’t look good.”

I married a nurse. What should I expect? Lola edges me out of the bathroom and I go back to bed. She’s a take charge girl. Know your stuff and respond quickly, best kind. It’s one thing I love about her and if I didn’t it wouldn’t change anything.

She goes to her purse and gets this little capsule, brings it with water and I swallow it. No point in asking. She showers and dresses and plants herself on a chair by the window next to the phone.

An hour goes by. I’m flying. No pain. It’s not aspirin. The phone rings.

“Yes, doctor…”

She describes my symptoms and I wait a long time.

“Yes, doctor.” She hangs up.

“He wants us to head for home, but don’t stop there. Come directly to the hospital. He’ll be there. He’s arranging for a surgeon. Said it’s obvious the chemo hasn’t stopped it.”

“They gonna cut a hole in my head?”

“Likely. I’m going to ask them for a brain transplant while they’re in there.”

“Funny.”

“Best chance I’ll ever get.”

“Ha ha.”

“Get up, buddy boy. We’re heading out as soon as we can pack.”

Talk about switcheroo. I get my summer vacation and now it’s back to the States to star in my personal life changing event. I’m riding; she’s driving. I got a new job; keep her awake.

Funny the twists and turns in a life. Until it’s not funny.